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Vegetable market could tighten as demand increases

The weather throughout the country has had a profound impact on the vegetable market over the last month, and it’s not done yet.

Experts say that as the East thaws out and demand picks up, the market is firming up and over the next month or so supply gaps could materialize.

Douglas Schaefer, president of EJ’s Produce Sales Inc. in Phoenix, said he knows the situation is tightening up when he starts fielding calls from occasional customers looking for product.

“We started getting those calls over the weekend,” he said Wednesday, March 4. “Things have been sloppy (bad markets) because there just hasn’t been any demand. But you can feel it changing.”

Mark McBride, who sits on the sales desk for Coastline Family Farms in Salinas, CA, agreed.

“The celery market has been bad for a long time and we’ve had an oversupply of lettuce as the East Coast digs out from under the snow,” said McBride. “Nobody buys when its 20-30 degrees and you have 12 feet of snow outside.”

But McBride said it is starting to warm up and orders are starting to filter in.

This is also the time of year that vegetable production, especially lettuce, transitions from the deserts of California and Arizona to California’s Central Coast and the San Joaquin Valley district of Huron.

“I was just out walking the fields in Huron the other day,” said McBride. “It looks like we are going to start the week of March 23, which will dovetail well with the end of our Imperial Valley deal on March 20.”

He added that a transition period can always create a supply gap, as the shift doesn’t always go as smoothly as anticipated.

And West Coast weather can still play a very important role in March and April.

In its mid-February forecast, Salinas, CA-based Tanimura & Antle noted that the spring could bring some unpredictability. At that time, the vegetable giant said it is continuing to harvest ahead of schedule, because of warm desert weather.

“This has helped the short-term supply shortage issue but will create supply gaps this spring,” according to T&A. “Expect volatile markets in March and April.”

It appears those volatile markets could arrive right on schedule.

During the last week of February, Iceberg lettuce was only trading for about $7 to $8 per carton, but many of the other lettuces, including Romaine and leaf items, were in shorter supply with f.o.b. prices in the teens. The first week of March saw an upward pressure on Iceberg lettuce, with Romaine continuing to be in a demand-exceeds-supply situation.